John Waterer & Luggage

A tale of two trunks

Written by Victoria Green

If you’ve ever visited our museum, read our blogs or taken an interest in leather, then the chances are that you’ve heard of John Waterer. He was a luggage designer, the ‘go-to guy’ for all things leather, and the source of some very quotable quotes (such as ‘leather is everywhere!’, and ‘there’s nothing like leather!’). We are also very fond of John Waterer because he founded the Museum of Leathercraft, now the National Leather Collection, in 1946.

Waterer was born in Peckham, London, on 9th August 1892. After serving with the Royal Navy in the First World War, he returned to his apprenticeship in the luggage department of a leather goods company. The rest, as you might say, is history. Waterer became the Managing Director of travel goods manufacturer S. Clarke & Company in 1936 and remained there until he was 71 years old.

He was an innovator, creating the pakawa handle, which folds flat to the case when not in use, and introducing the zipper onto personal luggage. The hallmarks of his design were simplicity, style and quality materials. One of Waterer’s best-known innovations, however, was the creation of the Taycall wardrobe case in the 1940s, the revolutionary forerunner of Aerolite luggage. In 1953, Waterer was appointed a Royal Designer for Industry (RDI). He was introduced by Sir Francis Meynell as “not merely the historian of his industrial craft” … “his designs are sensitive to the past, obey the compulsions, the needs and the methods of the present and, as I believe, bequeath to the future”.

Waterer acquired many luggage items on behalf of the museum and, if you’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing a store tour, you’ll know that our cases, bags and trunks are stacked floor to ceiling in a wonderful veg-tan scented room.

Ladies Wardrobe Case by Taycall

I can understand John Waterer’s love for luggage. A veteran traveller myself, I find myself most interested by the stories it tells. One of my suitcases is missing a wheel (thank you, Gloucester Road tube station!), the other still has dirt in the pockets from a trip to the Amazon even though I’ve vacuumed it many times. Then, of course, there’s the tags and stickers that make it so easily identifiable in baggage reclaim (and show off to everybody where I’ve been). Rewind to the early 20th Century and it would seem that things were no different.

© National Leather Collection 2018
© National Leather Collection 2018

‘RMS Atlantic cruising through the tropics’ – a Royal Mail Lines calendar illustration by Kenneth Shoesmith, 1935

Perhaps one of my favourite items in the museum is this innocuous leather suitcase from the early 1900s. It’s neither particularly old, nor particularly fancy, but it tells the most wonderful story of a life well lived. The suitcase is worn, and covered in travel labels – souvenirs of destinations covering Europe and beyond, from the Victoria Hotel in Amsterdam to the Grand Hotel in Wien and the Dresden Palast Hotel. There is even a sticker for passage on the R.M.S. Atlantis, with the disembarkation section filled out on ’30 June 19??’ from ‘Tilbury’. The Atlantis was part of the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, having been re-named and repurposed as a cruise ship after WWI, thus dating our journey to post-1929. Ships disembarking from Tilbury in the early 20th Century were mainly headed to Australia or New York, though passenger lists to far-flung destinations like Rio de Janeiro, Accra and Singapore are dotted throughout the 1930s.

Tantalisingly, the corner of a name label remains intact, with a ‘G’ and perhaps an ‘e’ (if we’re being optimistic) visible. The suitcase is monogrammed with embossed initials; an obscured ‘.’ and an ‘L’ peeping out from between the layers of travel labels. Who was our avid globe-trotter, ‘G. L.’? Did he travel for work or for pleasure? Did he travel alone? This leather suitcase represents tiny glimpses into a tale of a man’s life.

© National Leather Collection 2018

A selection of suitcases and trunks from the 19th – 20th Century

Another interesting story told by trunks and cases is one of evolution. Back in the 17th Century, lords and ladies were using large, cumbersome travelling trunks, designed for use with a horse and carriage, or perhaps in the cabin of a ship. Early, primitive ancestors of the Taycall wardrobe case, these trunks came with drawers and compartments for storing personal belongings. They were often monogrammed and highly decorative. One notable example from the collection belonged to Catherine of Braganza, the wife of Charles II.

If you fast forward to the early 19th Century, luggage becomes smaller and more portable. Why is this? you may ask. Travel by train was increasing in popularity, and luggage was adapting. The real suitcase revolution hit in the first half of the 20th Century; commercial air travel. As the popularity of aeroplanes grew, luggage became smaller, lighter. Bags were less about decoration and status, and more about function and utility.

Nowadays, suitcases are made of smart materials – designed to be strong and portable, while weighing less than ever before. We all know what a headache airline baggage allowances can be for the more frivolous packer! Just compare, for example, the difference between a 17th Century travelling trunk and a Bill Amberg ‘Rocket Bag’ from the 1990s. The pace at which we are currently evolving is breakneck; the original Rocket Bag design has already become ‘outdated’, with a re-design recently released to accommodate for laptops and gadgets owned by the modern consumer.

© National Leather Collection 2018

Trunk belonging to Catherine of Braganza, late 17th Century

A Bill Amberg Rocket Bag, 1990

Luggage has seen a huge change in design to keep pace with social evolution, and is more frequently used now than ever before. Even so, I’m sure many of these polyester cases won’t last half as long as our leather ones have.

If you’re particularly interested in the history of the suitcase, you should definitely read this brilliant blog post by the Smithsonian Museum.

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